Have you noticed the recent movement towards planting vineyards at crazily high elevations? Italy’s Alto Adige region has practiced high altitude viticulture for eons, but other places are seeing a trend that points in one direction only: upwards. Never before has there been such an interest in “mountain wine,” which is generally defined as coming from vineyards located 500 meters (1,640 feet) above sea level, or from any site with a slope of 30 degrees or more.
One convert to mountain wine growing is Spain’s Bodegas Torres, who recently planted vines at 1000 meters above sea level. In the United States, high altitude viticulture is expanding at an astounding rate. This worldwide push upwards is prompted largely by changing climate patterns, and fueled by reports such as a recent Stanford University study suggesting that rising temperatures could shrink Northern California’s viable vineyards by as much as 50 percent over the next 30 years.
While vintners worldwide head into the hills searching for viable vineyard sites, business continues as usual in Alto Adige, which is one of the highest continuously cultivated wine regions on earth. And let’s be clear about this: growing grapes and making wine at high elevations is very different from doing it at sea level. Altitude amplifies everything. Mountain weather is inevitably freaky. Besides the punishing rainstorms, there’s the risk of hail, frost, and winds that snap vines around like bullwhips. Extremes of solar radiation and intense UV light affect grapes. Farm machinery can skid right off a steep vineyard. Mountain vineyards are generally smaller than those at lower elevations, with diverse soil types in a single plot. Sloping land leads to unsymmetrical blocks and, often, multiple harvests at a single site. High altitude winemakers must be skilled at managing high acid levels, dealing with musts that are lower in nitrogen, and handling grapes that may be higher in sugar.
Since growing grapes in the mountains requires the audacious mind-set that’s usually a prerequisite for bungee jumping, BMX racing or other extreme sports I call it “extreme viticulture”. Europeans have dubbed it “heroic viticulture,” perhaps an even better term. But given the risks involved, are there any rewards to daredevil winegrowing other than the satisfaction of proving that it can be done? Well, yes. Those of us who love food-friendly wines with lively personalities will point out the sublime streak of freshness and acidity, the complex flavors and, often, the deep pigmentation that distinguish quality mountain wines.
In Alto Adige, a surprising number of grape varieties thrive, among them Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Vetliner, Sylvaner, and Gewürztraminer. The most prevalent reds are Pinot Noir, Lagrein, and Schiava, an indigenous grape that has been growing in this region since at least the 13th century. Among the finest Alto Adige wines I’ve tasted recently, Terlano’s Montigl Pinot Nero wowed me with its intense bouquet, medium weight, gorgeous texture and savory flavors. Also impressive is Abazzia di Novacella’s Kerner, a uniquely aromatic white wine endowed with a lush, full body. Müller Thurgau isn’t a star in most wine growing regions, but it dazzles in Tiefenbrunner’s Feldmarschall von Fenner. This wine just explodes on the palate with complex fruit and minerality, and it has a long, caressing finish. When I shared my enthusiasm for it with Sabine 1Tiefenbrunner, she responded modestly: “Certainly the Müller Thurgau variety is one of the most suitable vines for extreme regions,” she said, adding that the Feldmarschall vineyard is one of Europe’s highest, rising 1,000 meters above sea level on the Fennberg Mountain. That is definitely extreme winegrowing—and it must be one reason the wine is so extremely good.
Marguerite Thomas is a columnist at Vineyard & Winery Magazine, and features writer and blogger at Wine Review Online.